Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Once A Critic, Always a Critic

Is being a restaurant critic the best job in the world? When I meet someone new and tell them that I write about food and wine, they often respond by telling me I am a lucky person to have such a great job. They want to hear the details, to know the names of my favorite restaurants and wines. They want to hear about my best and worst meals. Yes, I love what I do but, like any job, it is not perfect. And most restaurant reviewers would likely agree.

At the New England Food Show (NEFS), I attended an interesting panel, put on by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, called Once A Critic, Always a Critic. The discussion dealt with: "What makes a great restaurant? Where do they usually make mistakes? What are new trends in dining (and what trends should end)? Join some of Boston’s most respected and influential food writers and critics for an open discussion about the restaurant industry in the Hub and as a whole. In this insightful and entertaining conversation, writers will share personal anecdotes and discuss their best and worst experiences (on and off the job), pet peeves, what always impresses them, and,favorite new local restaurants, and what keeps them coming back for more."

Moderated by Nicole Russo, Executive Vice President of 451 Marketing, the panel participants included (as pictured above): Mat Schaffer, a former Boston Herald restaurant critic and now the principal of Mat Schaffer ConsultingJolyon Helterman, an Independent Writer & Editing Professional, and Amy Traverso, Senior Editor, lifestyle of Yankee Magazine. Nicole asked the panelists a series of questions, and then there was a time for questions from the audience. The panel only lasted an hour though could have easily gone for twice that length.

Please note that I am paraphrasing the responses of the panelists.

Is being a restaurant critic the best job in the world?
Amy: Yes, is is an amazing way to make a living.
Jolyon: There are beauty hazards and it is hard to keep the weight off
Mat: It can be the best job but still lots of work is involved. He had to eat out 5-6 times per week and had to be in mood for whatever restaurant cuisine his editor assigned to him that week. He used to eat at a restaurant, anonymously, 2-3 times and order lots of food. After quitting his job as a critic, he lost about 30 pounds. He notes that a restaurant critic must be objective, honest, fair and possess a professional attitude.

What type of feedback have you received from your reviews?
Amy: She related an anecdote about a hotel which was upset that it did not receive a magazine award. They bundled up copies of the magazine in a ttrash bag and delivered it to her office.
Jolyon: He mentioned that he has not written about some negative things he has encountered at restaurants as he felt it would not be fair to the restaurant, such as finding chewed gum in a dish.
Mat: He has received plenty of negative feedback from his critical reviews, from mass emails to profantity laced diatribes.

Where do restaurants make their biggest mistakes?
Amy: She is very sensitive to sound issues. Also thinks service is very important.
Jolyon: There is too much fancy plating at casual dining spots.
Mat: The "restaurant business is all about expectations" and they must meet or exceed them. He has little issue with noise but hates misspelled menus.

What are some of your "go to" restaurants outside of reviews?
Amy: As she has a child, she now goes most often to casual spot. She really enjoys Area 4, Sofra, Puritan, Island Creek, and Marliave.
Jolyon: He searches for a perfect vibe, even if all of the food is not so good. Maybe a place does a great fried chicken but the rest of their menu is merely average. Also likes sitting at the bar. He enjoys Myers + Chang, Coppa, Belly Bar, Westbridge, and Erbaluce.
Mat: He likes a number of places in Chinatown, such as Montien, China King, and some Hot Pot spots. He thinks that the best restaurant in the Boston area is Salts and that Clio is another top notch place. He also enjoys Stella's in the South End.

What are some current restaurant trends?
Amy: Experimental business models such as popups, underground restaurants, and food trucks. She likes the new restaurant Asta which only offers three prix fixes each night and there is no ala carte menu. She also likes to see old style recipes brought back, kind of retro for traditional dishes.
Jolyon: He likes the pre-order big dinners, like pig roasts, which become more of an event than just a dinner.
Mat: Cocktail culture, farm to table, other nationality cuisines.

How does the Boston dining scene compare to other cities?
Jolyon: He likes Boston but feels that Portland, Oregon and Seattle are kicking our butts. Much of that is due to the issue of liquor licenses as it is so tough for new restaurants in Boston to obtain them. That acts as a significant obstacle to potential new places.
Mat: He feels the Boston culinary scene is not as big as some other cities and that we lack sufficient resources to support many more restaurants. He is proud of our restaurants, feeling we have come a long way but that we still have a long way to go.

Who are some young chefs to watch?
Jolyon: Should keep an eye on the Chefs de cuisine who are working under the big name chefs.
Mat: Will Gilson and Louis DiBiccari

How has food writing changed in recent years?
Amy: Critics have been forced to review restaurants earlier. Used to wait 4 months but now only 2. A great restaurant review should present a historical/cultural context, and almost be like an anthropological study.
Jolyon: Immediate feedback. One of the biggest problem is a lack of calibration, where some writers let one small slight take over their entire review, rather than giving each element its proper proportional credit.
Mat: For bloggers and online writers, there often is no editor to keep them honest.

I asked them a question on whether restaurant critics should address drink programs in their reviews.
All of them agreed it was necessary and recommended critics gain wine/alcohol knowledge. They also mentioned there were three possible reasons why a review might not include coverage of drinks programs. First, it might be the fault of the critic. Second, it might be the fault of the restaurant which fails to emphasize its drinks program. Third, it could be due to editorial cuts in the review.

A few additional comments of note.
Amy stated some advice for writers. "The more specific your pitch the better."
It is hard to get attention from restaurant critics for a long term client. The new restaurants seemd to get all the attention.
It also seems hard for restaurants outside of the Boston area, such as in the suburbs, to get restaurant reviews.

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